A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
If you would like to contribute to this compendium please submit your ideas here.
All will be considered for publication by our expert panel.
  • Share

    Japan’s ‘first’ Olympic Book, ‘The Fruits of Olympus’, was published in 1940[UPDATED: 7-6-2021]

    In 1932 Japan sent a large team of 115 men and 16 women to the Los Angeles Summer Olympics. They performed extremely well, winning 7 gold, 7 silver, and 4 bronze medals. Japan’s success at this Olympics did not just generate nationalistic pride at home; it also produced one of Japan’s first Olympic literary works, a bestselling novella by Hidemitsu Tanaka (1913-1949), Orinposu no Kajitsu, The Fruits of Olympus (1940).

    Tanaka was an Olympic rower who at the age of 19 competed in the Men’s Coxed Eights. He and his Olympic crew didn’t bring back any medals from the games. But the Olympic experience led to Tanaka’s novella, which unlike his Olympic feats was a major success, creating its own narrative milestone.

    The Fruits of Olympus, a rites of passage novel about unrequited love, is the tale of a young moody athlete, also a rower, leaving his country and representing it on the Los Angeles Olympic stage.

    It is not your typical Japanese sports book with an individual becoming a national hero by overcoming every challenge faced through extreme hard work and diligence. Much of the short novel takes place on the boat journey from Japan to the games in the United States.

    The novella, a semi-autobiographical I-novel style work of autofiction, follows Sakamoto, a university rower who doesn’t enjoy all aspects of being part of his Olympic team. The rowers life takes on new meaning, however, during the boat journey to America on which a female athlete (an 18 year-old high jumper) catches his eye and he falls for her. 

    The Fruits of Olympus articulates the anxiety of youth struggling with young love, authority, peer-pressure and expectations. Rowing success is elusive, Sakamoto’s efforts are fruitless and he returns to Japan without fulfilling his dreams; and is unable to rise to the challenge of even telling the high jumper how he feels.

    The Fruits of Olympus was initially published in a literary magazine, Bungakukai, but became more popular in book format, according to academics, after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War – especially among schoolboys.

    Perhaps, as some academics have argued, Sakamoto’s international failure, his skepticism about the strategy and approach adopted, and his inability to articulate his feelings, including those of defeat, reflected how many felt in post-war Japan.

    Since its publication in 1940: popular Japanese sports have diversified to include diving and football as well as rowing; and Japan’s Olympic literature has also evolved in a way that would undoubtedly have surprised but perhaps also delighted Tanaka.

    Japan’s ‘first’ Olympic Book, ‘The Fruits of Olympus’, was published in 1940 Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    The world’s bestselling comic book series by a single author is ‘One Piece’ a Japanese manga[UPDATED: 6-3-2021]

    According to The Guinness Book of Records, Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece sold 320,866,000 units worldwide between its launch in 1997 and 2015 when it was first listed by Guinness as a record breaking series.

    One Piece, which is an on-going series that still tops the bestseller lists in Japan, was initially launched by the Japanese publisher Shueisha in its weekly magazine Shonen Jump in July 1997.

    Since its magazine launch One Piece, now the world’s bestselling manga, has also been published in book format in more than 92 tanko-bon single hardback volumes.

    The pirate adventure, One Piece, which features a young pirate Monkey D. Luffy fighting the World Government, is now what industry observers call an international media franchise, and includes anime spin-offs and much more.

    One Piece has also had a huge cultural impact in Japan and outside the nation that has led, for instance, to some of Japan’s most interesting authors, such as Fuminori Nakamura, penning essays about the series and its cultural impact, as well as academic papers such as Pirates, Justice and Global Order in the Anime One Piece.

    The world’s bestselling comic book series by a single author is ‘One Piece’ a Japanese manga Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    By the early 1900s so many books had been published ‘Explaining Japan’ that one author felt compelled to write a book summarising them[UPDATED: 6-2-2021]

    In 1904, Kiyoshi Kawakami (1873-1949), a Japanese journalist based in Seattle, wrote a book titled Japan and the Japanese, where he looked back and summarised how Western writers had opined on and written about Japan.

    He explained his objective as: “I had read a considerable number of books and review articles by foreign writers on various topics connected with Japanese life. It then occurred to me that a compilation of the views of some of the representative foreign writers on Japan would be of great interest as well as benefit to the reading public, especially to younger readers at home.”

    Kawakami includes extracts from writers such as Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), Sir Edwin Arnold (1832-1904), Isabella Bird (1831-1904), Captain Brinkley (1841-1912), Pierre Loti (1850-1923) and others in his book.

    Japan and the Japanese includes topics and headlines such as:

    The Most Paradoxical Race, The Virtue of the Japanese Woman, Frauds and Tricks of Trade, New Japan: The Schoolmaster of Asia, Lack of Imaginative Power in The Japanese Poet, The Japanese Girl, Indifference to Nudity, Self-Inflicted Ugliness of Japanese Women, First Impressions of Japan, Japanese Cultivation not Civilisation, The Characteristic Peculiarity of Japanese Servants, Foreign Costume as Worn by Japanese Men and Women, Frog-Poems in Japanese Literature, Why Japanese Merchants Lack Commercial Morality, Popular Misconceptions of Japan, Alleged Unchastity of the Japanese Women, Japan Old and New.

    Below are some of Kawakami’s observations and comments:

    “Are we complimented when such an author as this tells the world that Japan is peopled with dear giggling dolls, living in dear little miniature houses made of cardboard, and eating fairy food out of miniature dishes?

    “Have we any reason to rejoice when a man like M. Pierre Loti seems to take Japan as a bright and fascinating freak of geography and ethnology? To be brief, Japan is or at least has been, in the eyes of most of her admirers, like an innocent sweet damsel to be petted and played with, and not like a strong man commanding the respect of all who come in contact with him.

    “To a reader such as he I must explain that those foreigners who have studied and endeavored to understand Japan form a mere fraction as compared with the great mass among which prevails dense ignorance regarding things Japanese.

    “The present war with Russia will no doubt greatly assist in introducing Japan to a vastly wider circle of foreign acquaintances and in doing away with many of the misunderstandings that have been preventing the Westerners from establishing a closer friendship with the greatest of all Oriental races.

    “My labour will be more than rewarded if the foreign reader of this book lays hold of the fact that the Japanese of the new school do not care to be exploited for those old, quaint, and beautiful ‘ things Japanese:’ that they are something else than what they have been; while the Japanese reader bears in mind that upon his shoulders rest the grave responsibility of realizing the Greater Japan which is no longer the habitation of dear little weaklings.”

    Kawakami wasn’t the only Japanese writer who felt obliged to write books in English about Japan and the Japanese.

    In 1905, a Japanese aristocrat, Baron Suyematsu (1855-1920), educated at Cambridge University graduating with a law degree in 1884, for instance, also felt compelled to write books in English in what can surely be described as an early form of ‘myth-busting’ or ‘fake news’ management.

    One of Suyematsu books was titled Fantasy of Far Japan or Summer Dream Dialogues. It was published, by Archibald Constable, in 1905 and he wrote a second book titled The Risen Sun.

    Another famous and important similar example is Bushido: The Soul of Japan by Inazo Nitobe (1862-1933) who like many emerging Japanese authors of the period was from a samurai background. He was the son of a retainer of a daimyo (warlord).

    Nitobe converted to Christianity and became a diplomat and international statesman. He wrote his famous essay on samurai ethics in English in 1900, before the books by Kawakami and Suyematsu were published.

    Nitobe’s book had a major impact and influenced many including former US President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), who reportedly bought copies for his friends.

    By the early 1900s so many books had been published ‘Explaining Japan’ that one author felt compelled to write a book summarising them Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    Manga magazines and books generate more than half of all publishing revenues in Japan[UPDATED: 6-2-2021]

    According to The All Japan Magazine and Book Publisher’s and Editor’s Association (AJPEA) manga magazines and books generate more than half of all publishing revenues, which are estimated at 1.4 trillion yen (US$14 billion), in Japan.

    Manga magazines and books generate more than half of all publishing revenues in Japan Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    Two of Japan’s most famous authors Ryunosuke Akutagawa and Yukio Mishima translated ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ into Japanese[UPDATED: 3-8-2021]

    Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in English in 1865, has been translated into Japanese more times than any other language, and two of Japan’s most famous authors; Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), after whom one of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes is named; and Japan’s most notorious author Yukio Mishima (1925-1970), have translated the story into Japanese.

    Akutagawa’s translation of Lewis’s story was published in 1927. It was a collaborative effort with others and had the Japanese title Arisu Monogatari; and Mishima’s translation was published in 1952, with illustrations by Goro Kumada  (1911-2009), with the title Fushiginokuni Arisu

    Rendering and adapting Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into brilliant and readable Japanese, that reflects the nuances of the original story, is a rabbit hole of a challenge that many have tried and continue to try, since at least 1895, not just these two famous and highly regarded authors.

    Two of Japan’s most famous authors Ryunosuke Akutagawa and Yukio Mishima translated ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ into Japanese Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    In Meiji Japan books were the ultimate ‘must-clutch’ fashion accessories for young women and schoolgirls[UPDATED: 10-28-2020]

    In Meiji era (1868-1912) Japan, when the nation was experiencing a period of rapid modernisation and opening up to the West, books and often Western imported ones were a ‘must-clutch’ fashion accessory for young women.

    An example of this can be seen in the 1897 woodblock print series, True Beauties, by Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912) at the Ota Museum in Tokyo.  In one of the images in this series a schoolgirl is depicted holding a western-style umbrella, dressed in traditional Japanese clothing and holding a foreign book in her left hand with a ring on her finger.

    It is probably not too far of a stretch to say that the brown leather covered book with its crest looks somewhat similar to an early Louise Vuitton bag. Another example of an image of a young Japanese woman reading a Western novel in a woodblock print is Mirror of Enlightenment Feelings by Kunichika Utagawa (1838-1900).

    Images of women reading has been an important motif in Japanese art for a long time, so much so that research and books on the topic such as: The Female as Subject: Reading and Writing In Early Modern Japan have been published.

    Historically, reading was the preserve of Japanese aristocrats and thus women readers projected an image of high social rank especially those who read the classics and poetry, but as Japan modernised what was being read, how the book was held, and the environment within which the reading women was depicted all became important.

    In Meiji Japan being educated, open-minded while still holding onto one’s local obligations was considered important. Clutching an impressive Western-looking book as one walked around in a traditional kimono was an aspiration getup or the must-have look for some.

    In Meiji Japan books were the ultimate ‘must-clutch’ fashion accessories for young women and schoolgirls Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    Two influential books from the 1700s helped shape Japan as a Robot Nation[UPDATED: 8-21-2020]

    Japan is sometimes referred to as the Robot Kingdom due to its large number of robots and its openness to new technologies including robotics.

    Japan has more industrial robots than most countries; and more Artificial Intelligence (AI) patents than any other, according to some OECD measures. The government even has a written strategy that articulates the steps the nation will take towards becoming Japan as a Robotics Superpower.

    Two books published in 1730 and 1796 played a very important role in Japan’s development into the so-called Robot Nation it is today. 

    Both books were about mechanical Japanese toys known as Karakiri NingyoThese two Karakuri books helped increase the popularity of these intricately designed mechanical Japanese automata, and position robots as fun and unthreatening devices in most Japanese people’s minds.

    The 1796 book by Hosokawa Honzo Yorinao (1741-1796), Karakuri zui, sometimes described as Japan’s first mechanical engineering textbook, has been particularly influential.

    It provided detailed diagrams and descriptions of how to make Karakiri Ningyo, which are still used today by hobbyists and craftsmen to repair and reproduce this early form of home-entertainment robots.

    Even though Japan’s Karakuri roots go back much further with some believing as far as AD 697, the influence of these books, like the automata themselves, has had long-term and significant impact on Japan, its industry; and even the wider world. Japanese engineers at firms such as Toyota have referred to them and copied some of their design concepts in their products.

    And The British Museum has a woodblock print of Hosokawa’s book, titled Compendium of Clever Machines, in its famous collection.

    These two books and Japan’s rich and creative history of robot books in general, which includes both fiction and non-fiction, continues to influence and inspire robot engineers and researchers, as well as writers in Japan.

    Some of Japan’s most renowned contemporary storytellers such as Kazufumi Shiraishi and Soji Shimada have, for example, joined many other talented writers penning robot and cyborg tales.

    Works such as their respective Stand-in Companion and One Love Chigusa, generating a virtuous circle of creativity that seems to be providing perpetual momentum to this trend and the evolution of robot books, robot technology and its literature in Japan, and perhaps even robots themselves.

    Two influential books from the 1700s helped shape Japan as a Robot Nation Posted by Richard Nathan
  • Share

    Newspaper novels, Shimbun Shosetsu, still popular today, were launched in Japan in 1886 by the Yomiuri newspaper[UPDATED: 7-20-2020]

    There is some debate amongst academics about which work was the very first published newspaper novel, Shimbun Shosetsu, in Japan.

    Several are often mentioned, but some consider Torioi Omatsu Kaijo ShinwaThe New Martine Tales of Bird-Chasing Omatsu, by Hikosaku Kubota (1846-1898), published between 1877, and 1878, as one of the first, if not the very first, serialised newspaper novel. 

    It is a tale, allegedly based on a true story, of an attractive young woman who swindles her admirers, but in a twist of fate ends up being swindled herself in an early-age femme fatale type narrative.

    Omatsu, its protagonist, is an untouchable door-stopping beggar. At that time, such individuals were often given the moniker ‘bird-chaser’.

    The tale was published in 14 newspaper installments before being released as a woodblock-printed book, in 1878, based on the newspaper articles. A copy of which can be viewed online at Japan’s National Diet Library (NDL).

    It was, in a sense, a very early form of what is known today as fake news a type of reportage referred to in the 1880s in Japan as tsukuribanashi, manufactured stories.

    Omatsu’s exploits were initially reported as news and not as fiction in the newspaper and used to promote newspaper sales and expand readership. 

    Omatsu’s tale was published before what is generally considered Japan’s first modern novel in 1887, Ukigumo, The Drifting Cloud, by Futabatei Shimei (1864-1909).

    This was also before the Yomiuri newspaper, its publisher, which now claims to have the largest circulation of any newspaper in the world, 
    had created a dedicated section headed Shimbun Shosetsu, Newspaper Novel, clearly distinguishing fictional information from facts reported in its pages.

    It took almost a decade from the publication of
    The New Martine Tales of Bird-Chasing Omatsu for the newspaper’s Shimbun Shosetsu section to be launched in 1886, formally differentiating these two types of distinct content types, and spawning the genre of the Newspaper Novel.

    Kubota’s tale may not fall neatly into the definition of a modern novel in terms of its style, narrative and structure, despite using the often-exploited and occasionally iconic stock character of a protagonist who is a dangerous seductress, sometimes referred to in Japan as dokufu, poisonous women.

    Nonetheless, according to John Whitter Treat in The Rise and Fall of Modern Japanese Literature it ‘constituted the first modern readership in Japan by virtue of its scale.’ He considers it to be Japan’s first bestseller newspaper generated novel. 

    The Konjiki Yasha, The Gold Demonby Koyo Ozaki (1968-1903) published between 1897-1903 is also cited as one of Japan’s first important serialised novels.

    Also know as The Usurer in English. It was alongside Hototogisu, The Cuckoo, by Kenjiro Tokutomi (1868-1927) one of the two bestselling works of literature in Japan’s Meiji period (1868-1912). 

    Serialised fiction published in newspapers is still popular today in Japan. High profile authors such as Mitsuyo Kakuta, Fuminori Nakamura and Kazufumi Shiraishi continue to write Shimbun Shosetsu with great success.

    The Yomiuri newspaper, the largest of Japan’s so-called big five national newspapers, is also still heavily involved in the publishing and promotion of literary fiction, now clearly marked as fiction, through its newspapers, and magazines such as Chuo-Koron one of Japan’s oldest continuously published magazines,

    The newspaper also organises literary prizes, owns a book publishing company, and the serialised fiction the Yomiuri continues to publish in its morning and evening editions is still enjoyed by millions throughout Japan.

    Newspaper novels, Shimbun Shosetsu, still popular today, were launched in Japan in 1886 by the Yomiuri newspaper Posted by Richard Nathan